Ian Brinton reviews
by Martin Anderson
The publication of this second volume of prose pieces by Martin Anderson extends and makes more complex the enormous achievement which was presented in the first twenty-nine sections published by Shearsman in 2006. In that first volume it became quite clear that here was an author whose understanding of the language of landscape allowed the reader an insight into a world which was both palpable and dream-like, a landscape of the mind presented in such a way as to convince the reader of its precise location:
We are born with the fragments of obliterated spaces within us. A celestial sensorium. A wind of luminous, driven particles. The sun shod storm of our being that will not stop with us—that, indeed, does not, in all its fitful accretions, recognise a person—that did not begin with us. (VI)
We remember the piles of dromedary dung freezing at night on the outskirts of town under cold stars. At the railway station it was so cold all the thermometer casings cracked. But in the morning the smell of coal dust in the streets, the gleam of fish ponds and canals, the sound of dried grass crackling under brick ovens, woke us. (II)
Martin Anderson spent many years as an English language teacher in the Far East (
Philippines) before returning to in 2001 and as Carolyn van Langenberg put it in her review of that first volume for Jacket Magazine: England
The Hoplite Journals is about language, the hoplite Martin Anderson a mercenary of the dominant culture, a person paid to deliver the means by which one may succeed on the net, at the stock exchange, at international forums and in the flight cabin.
The tensions between observation which tries to get the outside world in and an inability to shed the inherited values which the observer brings to bear upon what he sees, bring to mind the world which might be described as the ‘non-egocentric attention to the particular’ (Journals, R.F. Langley, Shearsman 2006). This is the world of Thomas Nagel who opens his book, The View From Nowhere (O.U.P., 1986) with the statement:
This book is about a single problem: how to combine the perspective of a particular person inside the world with an objective view of that same world, the person and his viewpoint included. It is a problem that faces every creature with the impulse and the capacity to transcend its particular point of view and to conceive of the world as a whole.
These tensions also haunt this second volume:
Always, on reading his books, you began to feel that you were listening to a voice within a voice, an echo that, sent out into the world to discover itself, came back not so much repatriated but as a voice in which reflection had perished. And in its inscrutable cadences you recognised and knew, with a profound surprise, that he had all along in his life, and in his work, not so much been drawing upon his own experience, as considering whether he was a part of it at all. (XXXVIII)
Given Carolyn van Langenberg’s shrewd comments about
being employed as a mercenary of the dominant culture it comes as no surprise that one of the echoing voices behind these journal entries should be that of Charles Dickens. The administrative world of the Circumlocution Office where the files ‘in multiple copies, of official forms, waiting to be processed…impede the corridors and every square inch of space…And everyone smiles’ (I) can only be escaped by the ‘minor copyist at the Ministry of Documents’ who gets out of the building at mid-day: Anderson
Outside, through the thick adobe walls and stained windows, he was aware of the muffled sounds and shadows of the city…Into that indistinct hubbub at mid-day he took himself, for as long as he thought he would not be missed, wandering the back streets and alleys…(XXIX)
As with the world of Dickens the river runs through the heart of this urban squalor redolent of bureaucracy and moral stagnation ‘black as the river Godansku, with its dead dogs and poisonous fogs, that flowed through the centre of the city.’
However, there is another voice which haunts this landscape and it is the nightmare confusion of Paul Auster where ‘no architecture of permanent forms would be appropriate in this land of instability of reference’ (I). Auster’s terrifying vision created in his 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things centres around the vertigo of realising that nothing exists permanently within the city and you therefore learn to take nothing for granted:
Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone.
In The Hoplite Journals this sense of vertigo is accentuated by the immensely powerful recreation of detail which embroiders the rich fabric of the prose style.
Martin Anderson’s work rises far above social criticism and moves clearly away from the encyclopaedic enumeration of detail which could bedevil the diarist. He writes about the growing understanding of how the individual relates to the world around him and how the palpable nature of the past haunts our present:
Vainly we struggle to re-apprehend what we experienced in those first few years of our lives. Under what circumstances could such a length of time simply vanish? The overwhelming darkness of that time was not so much a darkness as a time of dream, when the gates of an immediate contact with our experience were, still, fully open—unlike later, when our creative imagination would, instead, be forced to seek a contact with it through words. As we walk beside that dark wood of lost years what we hear, then, is the silence of a time that never found its way into words. (
I am already looking forward to the publication of the third volume.
Ian Brinton is a regular contributor to Eyewear. He is a British critic and scholar.